Sunday, August 9, 2020

Talking Heads, "The Big Country" (Track of the Week)

 For twenty years now since the 2000 election the "red versus blue America" framing has dominated our political discourse. The pandemic has made the country's political geography even starker, as "red states" have often refused to put mitigation strategies in place and "blue states" have embraced restrictions. 

During my life, I have migrated back and forth across that line. I grew up in rural Nebraska (deep red), went to college in Omaha (purple), lived in Chicago (deep blue), went to grad school in central Illinois (reddish purple), worked in Grand Rapids (ditto), worked in East Texas (deep red), and lived in North Jersey while working in New York City (blue.) The politics of the nation have colored my feelings about these places. While I still hate it when people put down my home state, I don't defend it with the same elan that I used to.

My ambivalence comes from the knowledge that the red state world that made me is involved in making this country an unlivable, ungovernable mess. Living here in my progressive pre-war New Jersey suburb I can go close by and catch glimpses, which usually repulse me. (It should be said that thinking in terms of red and blue "states" doesn't work.) Back in June I went into a liquor store in my in-laws' conservative automotive suburb and behind the counter was a big sign saying "Vote Trump in 2020 and make liberals cry again." (I put my beers down and left.) This week as I drove back from a hike in a state park I saw massive Trump banners and blue line flags in a rural New Jersey town. 

The revulsion I felt in these supposedly "all-American" places comes across so well in the Talking Heads' "The Big Country," the last song on their second album. The narrator is flying from the city over the suburbs and farms, noting the day to day life below. He finds himself repulsed by the tract housing and supermarkets, concluding "I wouldn't live there if you paid me to!"

The music is different for the Heads, acoustic guitar strumming and a Western, soaring slide guitar that sounds almost like a parody of country music. It's not just the band who's left the city, the music has too. Unlike country music, which is full of songs praising rural life in opposition to the big city, this song is the embodiment of that infamous New Yorker cover showing the limited view of the country held by Manhattanites. It's an answer song to Buck Owens' "I Wouldn't Live In New York City (If They Gave Me The Whole Damn Town)."

As a child of "flyover country" I used to resent "The Big Country" even though I loved the Talking Heads. I thought it was the usual elitist bullshit and ignorance masquerading as cosmopolitanism embodied by that magazine cover. These days, however, I hear it with new ears. It's not the supermarkets and baseball diamonds of the song that bug me, but the blue line flags and religious billboards. It's a world I am glad I escaped, even if I cannot escape its chokehold on national politcs.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

A Reason For Hope

As we get closer to the election, Donald Trump only gets more and more brazen. This weekend he effectively purged the post office, trying to hobble the institution necessary to carry out a free and fair election during a pandemic. Today he issued executive orders from his golf course that don't seem to be legal or constitutional. He is trying to rule by decree and to manipulate voting. If this was happening in another country our media would not be shy about calling this open authoritarianism. 

The United States has been drifting this direction for four years under Trump. Once the reality of him losing power has surfaced, his few remaining scruples have been dropped. The chaos of the pandemic, which he has made worse by failing to address it, has given him cover. Like other authoritarians he creates so much disruption that it is hard for anyone to know where to begin or to know what to do. It makes people just feel helpless.

So we sit confused, doom-scrolling through social media, and not doing anything. In the days of late May and early June I could feel the seismic shifts of history beneath my feet, but they passed. The crowds at the White House and in the streets across the country faded. The fundamental power relationship in the country managed to weather the storm. 

The hardcore 40-45% of the country loyal to Trump have not been changed, either. They are flying bigger banners this time around, doubling down on their choice. They are fighting mask decrees and spreading wild conspiracy theories on social media.

There is a true "silent majority" in this country that wants conservatives out of power, but its silence is the problem. Most people in this group still believe in American democracy. They still think an election can fix this. I doubt that it will. I go into this November with about a 50-50 feeling that American democracy will not survive it. 

As upsetting as this is, one hopeful thought sustains me. I take heart in the notion that this disaster could bring about what Lincoln called "a new birth of freedom." The demolition of a failed system allows us to build something better. I am not optimistic about that outcome, mostly because it is beyond the imagination of most people in the aforementioned "silent majority." But I can hope. I plan on doing what needs to be done to turn that hope into reality.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Crisis Without Consensus

                      The Cold War Consensus didn't care for Henry Wallace

Recently I have been thinking a lot about how the end of the Cold War has been underrated in understanding American politics. Some of this comes from reading Julian Zelizer's excellent book about the rise of Newt Gingrich. His brand of scorched earth politics, which dumped governance for power by any means necessary, would not have worked in a Cold War America. That conflict forced a certain level of consensus, no matter how strained.

The Global War On Terror also had its own consensus, evidenced by Democrats voting along with George W Bush to bring the nation to war with Iraq. At this point I should say that I do not consider the Cold War or GWOT consensus to be good things! Both led to horrible things like the Red Scare, Vietnam, the Iraq invasion, and the PATRIOT ACT. I'm more interested here in getting at the domestic effects of consensus politics and as a comparison to our current situation.

The coronavirus is a crisis that lacks consensus. It's the most destructive event this country has faced in my lifetime and instead of uniting the country, has further divided it. The Cold War and GWOT formed their own consensus, as did Pearl Harbor, the Great Depression, and World War I. You can't really respond to a crisis as a country when there's no basic agreement over whether the crisis is even serious or not. 

To go back to the beginning, a big part of the reason is that we are thirty years removed from Cold War consensus and have spent that time embedded in Gingrichian politics. I also think this is in some ways reverting to the mean of American history. This is the same country whose fundamental divisions led to a bloody Civil War just over 150 years ago, and those divisions haven't even been settled! The Black Lives Matter movement is still having to push back against "the badges and incidents of slavery." There are still unreconstructed whites who want to keep up statues to Confederate generals. 

As the American Century ends, the global events that helped maintain consensus over a fractured and fundamentally divided United States have faded. It might be tempting to be only alarmed or sad about this, but this is an opportunity to finally have it out. The tides are shifting against the reactionaries, and they are holding on like the devil to maintain their power. There is no outside conflict they can use to blunt the forces of change anymore. Now is the time to act. 

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Quarantine Music


I just recorded a new podcast episode for my show Old Dad's Records. It's about music that I have been digging in quarantine. I start by talking about Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billie Joe," a song that takes on a new meaning in these times. After that I pull out a Tangerine Dream album and watch the lava lamp flow. I end by talking about Pavement's "Grounded," which I just rediscovered, and People Years, an Alabama band that should be getting more attention.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Thirty Percent Problem


As an educator this summer means many hours spent tying my brain into knots with anxiety. Over the next few days I expect to hear from my school, my wife's school district, and my children's school district about plans for fall. I pray that they are in some way compatible, since we are having to make shit up as we go all along. 

There's a deeper reason for that, of course. The United States has simply opted not to have any kind of national response to the pandemic. This is by design, since the president just wants people to go back to doing what they did before, thinking this will boost the economy and help him win the election. It also fits with his complete inability to build up, the man is only capable of destruction. 

When I have my daily anxiety attacks one thing I keep thinking about is how little will change even if Donald Trump loses the election and leaves office. A great number of Americans, I would estimate thirty percent, simply refuse to take the virus seriously. I've seen pictures and heard accounts from friends in some parts of the country where people do all kinds of activities in crowded, indoor areas without masks. Even here in New Jersey, which has suffered horribly from the virus, I will see people go into stores wearing a mask on their goddamned chins. 

This is not merely lax behavior, it is rooted in how deep our political divide has come. As plenty of others have pointed out, the thirty percent I mentioned before has reached "epistemtic closure." The people in that group simply do not trust ANYTHING that comes from outside their conservative world. This is not a matter of stupidity or ignorance, but a willful construction of an alternate reality. That's why presenting facts or educating will not matter. In fact, as with climate skeptics and anti-evolutionists, it only confirms their viewpoint if they are challenged and forced to defend it!

Social media and the segmentation of news into sources like talk radio, Breitbart, Fox, and OAN mean that the thirty percent has a constant stream of misinformation to confirm their membership in their community and distrust all those outside. Younger people might change their minds when exposed to other viewpoints, but as for the old, forget about it.

This means that even with a Biden presidency putting a national response in place, it would get nowhere. The militant minority could easily stop it. In fact, our political system is set up to let that happen. The unrepresentative nature of the Senate, the Senate filibuster, gerrymandering, and federalism all allow this thirty percent outsize power. A mask mandate and closures will simply never be undertaken by most Republican governors. What then? 

If Biden wins or he loses I predict that this disease will be endemic, killing and killing and killing and never stopping. There will be ebbs and flows, highs and lows, but it will always be here. And even if there is a vaccine developed (which I am skeptical of) enough of the thirty percent will refuse to take it and thus make it far less effective.

We've reached the point we have been traveling towards for years. The United States of America in its current state is ungovernable. There won't be a civil war, just decades of being an ever-burning dumpster fire of a country, like many of our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. It turns out we aren't all that exceptional after all. 

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Reasons Why Trump Is A Descendant of Reagan


I saw news this week that the Reagan Foundation, which manages the Gipper's library, has requested that the Trump campaign stop using Reagan in its fundraising materials. It's hard to tell how of this is the usual guarding of a dead public figure's image when the people in control of it don't profit, and how much of it is rooted in genuine dislike of Trump. In any case, the issue is a good time to remember that Donald Trump is very much part of Reagan's legacy.

It's important to see this, since there are many centrists who look back to the past and want to believe that Trump is some kind of aberration. Instead, he should be seen as the culmination of the path the Republican Party and conservative movement have taken in the last sixty years. Reagan, the most revered figure in the party and the movement, is a big part of this story.

To start with the obvious, Trump has lifted Reagan's 1980 campaign slogan "Let's Make America Again" and taken one word off. The similarities go beyond that, however. Here's a short but sweet list of examples:


  • In Reagan's famous 1964 speech for Barry Goldwater, "A Time For Choosing," he equated the Great Society with communism, the kind of base level red scarefear mongering that Trump and the Republicans do today. He also dismissed statistics about Americans going hungry by saying "they were on a diet." That "joke" showed the downright mean and nasty side to his personality beneath all the sunny smiles. 

  • Immediately after getting elected in governor 1966 Reagan sought to repeal the Rumford Fair Housing Act, a law that prohibited housing discrimination in California. National bans on discrimination would not be in place until 1968. Reagan claimed he was only defending property rights. Trump's recent Twitter diatribes about the suburbs being banned due to housing integration if Biden gets elected fall firmly into the same tradition. 

  • When MLK was assassinated in 1968, Reagan responded by calling King's death "great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they'd break." He basically said King brought it on himself. It's the kind of trollish, mean-spirited response to someone's death I could totally hear coming from Trump's mouth. As president Reagan dragged his feet on establishing Martin Luther King Jr Day. Even as he passed the bill, he wrote to a John Birch conservative that the holiday's support was based "on an image, not reality." What was this "reality"? I assume that Reagan followed Bircher logic and assumed King was a communist. The same article I linked to shows that Reagan refused to say whether he thought King was a communist or not. 


  • In 1980 when running again for president Reagan gave his first post-convention speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi. This happened to be the location of the murder of Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney in 1964 at the hands of the Klan. It was one of the most well-known atrocities of the civil rights era. In this speech Reagan infamously gave a full-throated endorsement of "states rights," a common euphemism for segregation. 

  • In running for president Reagan also loved to use racial resentment when discussing welfare. He often used the case of real-life Linda Taylor to perpetuate the "welfare queen" myth. He also referred to a "strapping young buck" buying a steak with food stamps. All of this reinforced the fraudulent idea that whites were the only people earning an honest living and that Blacks just freeloaded off of them. This racist formulation is at the heart of Trumpism. 


I could go on and get into Reagan's policies as president, from gutting public housing to hobbling the Justice Department's civil rights division. I think you get the idea. While he was more willing to embrace immigrants than Trump, his politics were suffused with white resentment. Reagan's skill was burying it under bullshit and a smile. Trump has made the subtext the text, and until the deeper roots of Trumpism are torn out of the political Right, it will keep coming back. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Hope On Opening Day

The opening day of baseball season is usually one of the happiest days of the year for me. It comes in with the spring, a sign of hope and new life. During the season baseball is my daily friend, a needed and consistent quotidian diversion.

This spring was the worst of my life and there was no baseball to cut through the despair. April, when even the Mets could be in first place, brimmed over with mass death and fear. That month here in my Jersey town the obituaries came fast and hard. I longed for any kind of dumb distratction and my favorite go-to was gone.

It is surreal to see a baseball season starting today in the blazing heat of the dog days of summer, which is normally the fulcrum of the long 162 game slog. I guess that's only appropriate, since every other facet of our lives has been thrown into flux. Now's usually about the time that the teams that have failed to reach contention pack it in and sell of their parts for prospects at the trading deadline. As a Mets fan I normally start to lower my expectations and look forward to seeing how well the late-season call-ups from the minors can do. Sometimes there's a moral victory or two to be had, like Dominic Smith finally getting able to play again after an injury and smacking a walk-off home run in the last game of the 2019 season.

Opening Day is always a time for unreasonable hope, when every team is in contention and reality has yet to dash any dreams. I am less concerned this day about my team, however, than in the players and personnel of all the teams being safe. Just as my fears are different this year, so are my hopes. I hope less for a pennant, than for a sign that we can somehow return to life and that our efforts to start opening things with safeguards in place can actually work. (As a teacher, I am particularly vested in this.)

I honestly don't know if trying to have a season in this conditions will work or not. Right now I just need some hope and something positive to look forward to every day, so I will just try to forget about the stakes and enjoy having my daily friend back again. This morning my daughters made little banners for Opening Day, and one of them is growing into a certified baseball nut. I look forward to hot summer days inside watching the games and talking baseball together. I haven't felt this cautiously hopeful in weeks.

Play ball

Baseball Ephemera To Enjoy

This gospel song using baseball as a metaphor for living the good life by Sister Wynona Carr gets my hands clapping every time.


If being a Mets fan means being satisified with moral victories, that Dominic Smith home run to end last season is one of the all-time great moral victories.


I love lame, shoddy baseball cards, and the 1983 Fleer card of Jim Kaat may be the best.


YouTube exists so that people can make a video re-enacting the end of game 6 of the 1986 World Series with Nintendo's RBI Baseball.